When you read a book, it's like you're having a conversation in your mind with the author. Sometimes it can be difficult to comprehend fully what the author is trying to communicate. How to Read a Book, by Adler and Van Doren is a timeless classic on reading comprehension. This is a very practical book that systemically breaks down strategies for reading different types of books as well as approaches for getting to the author's objective. Read this book if you want to get more quality out of the books you read.
As funny as it sounds, I knew that I needed to find a book on how to read a book. The amount of books I read per year has been steadily increasing. Reading more doesn't necessarily mean that I comprehend more. I needed to learn how to read more actively and how to navigate through different kinds of books.
-Become a more intelligent reader -Learn the different reading styles: Elementary reading, Inspectional reading, Analytical reading, Syntopical reading -Get better at reading seemingly difficult books, so you can expand your knowledge even further
“True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.” Mortimer J. Adler
“....a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable, books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.” Mortimer J. Adler
“The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.” Mortimer J. Adler
“A good book deserves an active reading. The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging. The undemanding reader fails to satisfy this requirement, probably even more than he fails to analyze and interpret. He not only makes no effort to understand; he also dismisses a book simply by putting it aside and forgetting it. Worse than faintly praising it, he damns it by giving it no critical consideration whatever.” Mortimer J. Adler
The primary goal of the book is to make books teach us well.
Reading a book is a kind of conversation with the author.
There is a distinction between reading for information and reading for understanding.
The author defines the art of reading as follows:
The process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations.
Reading can be used in different contexts:
Reading to increase our store of information, as in reading newspapers, magazines, blogs, or other categories that we already have some context and understanding around. This form of reading requires less mental energy, it is communication between equals, information-wise.
Then there is reading something you do not completely understanding, where the writers aim is to increase the reader's understanding, often in non-fiction writing. This form requires more mental energy.
Reading for understanding takes place when:
We learn from our "betters".
A book that can be read for understanding or information can probably be read for entertainment as well.
However, it is not true that every book that can be read for entertainment can also be read for understanding.
If you wise to read good, read for understanding.
To be informed is to know of something.
To be enlightened is to know of something and to know why it is the case and what its connections are with other facts and it's inverse relationships.
Being informed is a prerequisite in being enlightened. In reading you should know what the author said and what he means and why he says it.
Montaigne speaks of "an abecedarian ignorance and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it"
Those who have read widely, but not well enough and may have more information but no more understanding.
Fun fact: The greeks used to refer to these people as Sophomores.
The Four Levels of Reading
Three Historical Trends In Promoting Reading
One useful finding of recent research is the analysis of stages in learning to read.
Four Stages of Learning to Read
These stages of Elementary Reading are usually guided by a teacher, who can smooth out the rough patches in the learning process.
In higher levels of education, there is little structure in place to instruct higher levels of reading beyond elementary level, it is usually assumed the student possesses it on some level upon admission.
Inspectional reading is a true level of reading. You cannot read on the inspectional level unless you can read effectively on the elementary level.
The Two Kinds of Inspectional Reading
Usually happens if you don't know if you want to read a book. Unsure if it will require deeper analytical reading or if you have limited time to read the book.
Then you decide to Skim the book or pre-read it which is the fist sub-level of inspectional reading. You discover if the book is worth your time, or requires more careful reading.
Some habits of skimming:
Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues to a book's general theme or idea.
When we come across a book that is difficult to read in that we come across a number of things we don't understand, we often think that it was a mistake to read it in the first place.
However, it may be that we were expecting too much from the first going over of a difficult book.
In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the thinks you do not understand right away.
Pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp.
When we take too much time or focus too much on parts we don't understand, to get a dictionary, review footnotes or other reference sources prematurely, we impede our reading instead of helping it.
In your effort to master the fine points, you will miss the big points. Continue reading through and things will make more sense and when you've made progress you can fill in the missing gaps.
On Reading Speeds
A good speed reading course should teach you how to read at many different speeds, being able to vary your rate of reading in accordance with the nature and complexity of the material.
Some passages you should read slowly through, to enable better comprehension and some passages are not that complex and you should read much faster through those.
The goal is to build awareness of when a particular speed is appropriate.
Things that slow down reading speed
Subvocalization: People continue to sub-vocalize, that is to repeat words in their head. The mind, does not need to "read", which the eyes does, it can grasp a sentence or even a paragraph at a glance.
Eye Fixations: Films of eye movements, show that the eyes of young or untrained readers "fixate" as many as five or six times in the course of each line that is read. Sometimes there eyes return to phrases or sentences previously read.
Advice to reduce eye fixation: Place your thumb and first two fingers together. Sweep this "pointer" across a line of type, a little faster than it is comfortable for your eyes to move. Keep up with your hand and incrementally increase the speed at which your hands move.
The good reader reads actively, with concentration.
Speed-reading courses often do not improve reading comprehension.
Analytical Reading is a necessary component for reading for comprehension.
Read Speed Rule
Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.
To use a good book as a sedative to make yourself fall asleep is a major disservice to yourself.
Ask questions while you read-questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading
The Essence of Active Reading:
The Four Basic Questions a Reader Asks
How to make a book your own
Why you buy a book, full ownership occurs when you make a book a part of yourself, and that is by writing in it.
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it?
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author.
Types of Markings
The Three Kinds of Note-making
Structural Note-making: Contains notes to these questions that concern the structure of the book. What kind of book is it? What is it about as a whole? What is the structural order of the work whereby the author develops his conception or understanding of what general subject matter?
Conceptual Note-making: Notes about insights into the author's idea about his subject matter. The truth and significance of the authors statements and concepts and how your understanding is deepened or broadened.
Dialectical Note-Making: When you've read multiple books synoptically and make notes on the shape of the discussion that is engaged by the authors.
Forming the Habit of Reading
Any art or skill is possessed by those who have formed the habit of operating according to its rules.
Knowing the rules of an art is not the same as having the habit.
In the skiing example, the author explains how skiing is a very humiliating experience for an adult to go through, as it feels like learning how to walk all over again. There are endless falls, crossed skis and tumbles. Even the best instructor can have a slow time with a student, and although they communicate a ton of rules like keep your back straight, knees bent, but still lean forward, weight on the downhill ski, it's not in your best interest to think of all the rules while your in the act.
You must learn to forget the separate acts in order to perform all of them, and indeed any of them, well.
But in order to forget them as separate acts, you have to learn them first as separate acts.
It is hard to learn to read well. Not only is reading, especially analytical reading, a very complex activity, it is a challenging mental activity.
Mental activities are harder to train, and became solid patterns, than physical activities.
The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading
Rule 1: You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.
Rule 2: State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences.
Rule 3: Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole
Rule 4: Find out what the author's problems were.
Rule 5: Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author.
Rule 6: Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.
Rule 7: Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.
Rule 8. Find out what the author's solutions are.
Rule 9: You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, "I understand," before you can say any one of the following things: "I agree" or "I disagree", or "I suspend judgment".
Rule 10: When you disagree, do so reasonable, and not disputatiously or contentiously.
When you ask people about the book the supposedly, just read it's hard to get a consistent response on the core of the book's message.
One reason why titles and prefaces are ignored by many readers is that they don't think it's important to classify the book they are reading.
It's hard to get the meaning of the book from it's title.
An expository book is one that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypothesis or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense.
Intelligent action depends on knowledge.
Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.
The traditional subdivision of theoretical books classifies them as history, science, and philosophy.
The essence of history is narration. History is chronotopic. Chronos is the Greek word for time, topos the Greek word for place.
History is knowledge of particular events or things that not only existed in the past but also underwent a series of changes in the course of time.
In Science, Scientists seek laws or generalizations. It is more concerned with how things happen for the most part or in every case.
Philosophy is like science and unlike history in that it seeks general truths rather than an account of particular events, either in the near or distant past. A philosophy book appeals to no facts or observations that lie outside the experience of the ordinary man.
The Reciprocal Arts of Reading and Writing
The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones.
A good piece of writing should have unity, clarity and coherence.
If the writing has unity, we must find it. If the writing has clarity and coherence, we must appreciate it by finding the distinction and the order of the parts.
The First Stage of Analytical Reading, or Rules for Finding What a Book is about
One word can be the vehicle for many terms, and one term can be expressed by many words.
Discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words in the context that you do understand.
Determine an Author's Message
A proposition in a book is a declaration, and expressed the author's judgments about something they believe to be true or false.
From the author's point of view, the important sentences are the ones that express the judgments on which his argument rests.
Some clues to important passages:
A good book usually summarizes itself as its arguments develop.
The Second Stage of Analytical Reading, or Rules for Finding What a Book Says
A good book deserves an active reading. The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging.
"Read not to contradict and confute; not to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weight and consider." - Bacon
To criticize a book fairly:
Agreeing or Disagreeing with an author
These three conditions will help make and intelligent and profitable conversation.
When the reader says "I understand but I disagree", they are making either of the following remarks to the author.
"The great writers have always been great readers, but that does not mean that they read all the books that, in their day, were listed as the indispensable ones. In many cases, they read fewer books than are now required in most colleges, but what they did read, they read well. Because they had mastered these books, they became peers with their authors. They were entitled to becomes authorities in their own right."
"In the natural course of events, a good student frequently becomes a teacher, and so, too, a good read becomes an author."
Troubles in Reading Great Books
We can get more out of great books, by first learning how to read better which this book teaching and finding the books that are prerequisites to the one you want to read.
Other Books as Extrinsic Aids to Reading
"The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read."
"To join this conversation, we must read the great books in relation to one another, and in an order that somehow respects chronology."
How to Use Reference Books
How Not to Read Imaginative Literature
"Don't try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you."
"We learn from experience - the experience that we have in the course of our daily lives. So, too, we can learn from vicarious, or artistically created, experiences that fiction produces in our imagination.
Expository works do not provide us with novel experiences. They comment on such experiences as we already have or can get. That is why it seems right to say that expository books teach primarily, while imaginative books teach only derivatively, by creating experiences from which we can learn. In order to learn from such books, we have to do our own thinking about experiences; in order to learn from scientists and philosophers, we must first try to understand the thinking they have done."
General Rules for Reading Imaginative Literature
How To Read History
"The first is: if you can, read more than one history of an event or period that interests you. The second is: read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act in all times and places, especially now."
Questions to ask yourself when reading current events
"Most modern scientists do not care what lay readers think, and so they do not even try to reach them. Today, science tends to be written by experts for experts."
"But we do want you to recognize that one of the most remarkable things about the great philosophical books is that they ask the same sort of profound questions that children ask. The ability to retain the child's view of the world, with at the same time a mature understanding of what it means to retain it, is extremely rare - and a person who has these qualities is likely to be able to contribute something really important to our thinking."
The Fourth Level Of Reading: Synoptical Reading
"The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books on your list."
Doing this will give you a clear idea of the subject which will help when you subsequently read some of the books analytically.
Some books you will discover can be read faster than others.
Some books you will have a better understanding of whether it says something important about the subject or not.
The Synoptical Reader tries to look at all sides and to take no sides.
The Paradox of Synoptical Reading: "Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read synoptically, but unless you can read synoptically, you do not know what to read."
You have to know where to start to read synoptically.
The Five Steps in Synoptical Reading
"If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article."
"You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mend. And unless you stretch, you will not learn."
"There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body. The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not continue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. [..] But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. [..] The mind can atrophy, like the muscles, if it is not used."